Skip to comments.It's All About North Korea: Beyond the Iraqi sideshow.
Posted on 03/05/2003 7:12:23 AM PST by xsysmgr
Increasingly, it dawns that Iraq is a sideshow. The real problem is North Korea. Of course, it is imperative that we prevent Saddam Hussein from placing us in the sort of bind that Kim Jong Il already has. That is why we must invade Iraq. Yet with all its diplomatic, military, and long-term social-cultural implications, the international battle over Iraq will ultimately be a lesser thing than the emerging political and military struggle over North Korea.
In "The Other Imminent Danger," I reviewed our several bad options in Korea. There I argued that we are much closer to war than the media or the administration have let on. While I do believe that there is a very real possibility of war with North Korea within the next six months, the greater likelihood is war within the next six years. Sooner or later, war will probably break out a war that could be as terrible as any the world has seen since 1945. In the meantime, the Korean question is likely to be the focus of our national and international debates more so, perhaps, than the tumult in the Muslim world that follows our invasion of Iraq.
At the moment, North Korea is striving to create a crisis that will force us into another round of negotiations. Their recent interception of our reconnaissance aircraft is part of that plan. The critical moment will probably come shortly after we enter Iraq. At that point, when our military is least able to handle war on the Korean peninsula, the North Koreans will begin to reprocess spent fuel rods at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor into weapons-grade plutonium. The plutonium will then be removed from Yongbyon, secured against the gaze of spy satellites or future inspectors, and used to produce nuclear bombs. More ominously, the plutonium, and/or finished bombs, will then be sold to al Qaeda, and to regimes like Iran, Syria, and Libya. This will force us into a choice between 1) losing the war on terror through inaction; 2) an attempt to impose-ineffective sanctions; 3) negotiations with a government of proven liars; 4) a terrible war.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? In response to "The Other Imminent Danger," a few readers questioned my central premise that the North Koreans would sell nuclear materials to terrorists and rogue regimes. Unfortunately, the North Koreans have already used exports of scud missiles to troublesome regimes to prop up their disastrously weak economy. They have also collaborated with Pakistan in mutual development of nuclear weapons. The North Koreans would surely use their well-established trade ties to reap the massive financial benefits of nuclear sales to every government and terrorist organization that fears an American attack.
But can China, on whom the North is totally dependent, be made to force the Koreans to give up their nuclear game? In "The Other Imminent Danger," I argued that the Chinese could live with a nuclear South Korea and Japan, if that meant seeing America tied down in a protracted struggle with al Qaeda and the North Koreans. Yet a number of readers, and many pundits, argue that the Chinese will recognize that their true long-term interests lie with the United States on this matter. Beyond fears of a nuclear Japan, the Chinese economy depends on trade with the United States. The threat of restrictions on that trade might force the Chinese to act.
The Chinese may indeed reverse course on Korea. Perhaps they are moving behind the scenes to pressure the North Koreans right now. Yet the Chinese give no sign of a change. They fear that sanctions will destabilize Korea and lead to chaos, regime collapse, and millions of refugees. A Chinese turnaround in the next few months, before plutonium reprocessing has begun, or gone very far, might work. But once the reprocessing has played out for six months to a year, even Chinese sanctions will not be able to guarantee against secret North Korean sales. And I doubt that Chinese pressure, if simply forced by America trade sanctions, will be consistently or effectively applied.
So then, if plutonium reprocessing begins during our invasion of Iraq, and if the Chinese do not come around, what will happen? At that point, president Bush may receive a recommendation from Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and hawkish members of the National Security Counsel, to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea. On the other hand, Secretary of State Powell, along with Deputy Secretary of State, and Korean expert, Richard Armitage, will argue for negotiations. The doves will be informally joined by Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and other influential advisers to the first President Bush. Although the hawks have carried the day on Iraq, there is good reason to believe that, at first, the administration's doves will prevail on Korea.
True, a reasonably successful preemptive military strike against North Korea is not entirely out of the question. Such a strike could take two forms 1) a raid on Yongbyon and other Korean nuclear facilities, followed by the threat of a massive nuclear strike if the North Koreans do not stand down; 2) raids against North Korea's nuclear facilities, and simultaneous nuclear strikes against its ground forces and artillery emplacements, to preclude the possibility that the North could destroy Seoul in retaliation for our attack.
Recently, Jack Wheeler laid out a proposal for a secret first strike against Yongbyon, followed by a nuclear ultimatum to the North Koreans. The great danger here is that, sensing an imminent American attack on their nuclear programs, or following such an attack, the North Koreans would simply launch an artillery blizzard that would kill hundreds of thousands, or millions, in Seoul. That tells in favor of a full-blown preemptive strike with tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea's total military capability. The most interesting thing about Wheeler's proposal is his claim that, by using neutron bombs, an American first strike could effectively wipe out North Korea's army and artillery, with negligible radiation blowback onto the South. (I cannot, at present, assess the plausibility of Wheeler's nuclear scenario.)
The first scenario here (destruction of Korea's nuclear capability, followed by a successful nuclear ultimatum) still includes a substantial risk of failure, in which case Seoul will be wiped out and perhaps millions killed. The bolder plan of an across the board nuclear first strike at both nuclear and conventional Korean forces, would at minimum break the nuclear taboo, thus bringing the wrath of the world down upon the United States. Nonetheless, total success might in the end be accepted, given the obvious threat posed by Korean nuclear sales, and the notorious character of the North Korean regime.
The true disaster for the United States would be a strike against North Korea that does anything less than successfully intimidate the regime into passivity, or rapidly and totally eliminate its military capacity. Short of rapid and total success, we face the deaths of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of South Koreans.
It can certainly be argued that we must take that terrible risk, in order to forestall the horrific prospect of eventual terrorist nuclear strikes against American cities. But the truth is, too small a portion of the public understands the imperatives involved. For many, sacrificing Seoul in the present, on the theory that someday North Korean plutonium will enable terrorists to destroy New York and Washington, will not make sense. This would be true even for many Americans, mush less the rest of the world.
This points to a dangerous and emerging dynamic in the war on terror. America's historically unprecedented military hegemony is working to isolate us from our allies. Advancing technology (in combination with America's economic strength) has made our disproportionate power possible. Yet advancing technology has also enabled otherwise undeveloped societies to gain control of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, terrorists and rogue regimes can threaten us on our own soil. That means that our erstwhile allies now have an interest in at least partially dissociating themselves from us, so as not to become targets of terror or war.
During the Cold War, we put our own troops at risk to protect states that were themselves the frontline of defense against a mutual enemy. In that sense, America showed the worth of its friendship by sharing risk with its less powerful friends. But now, the conjunction of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction means that we alone can be targeted. America is now the front line, and other countries can at least hope to escape attack by disentangling themselves from association with America. Our power and wealth may ensure that other countries try not to alienate us over much. Yet simultaneously, other countries' fears of becoming targets of terrorism and war works to weaken or break our alliances. (For a perceptive discussion of this, see Noah Millman's response to "The Other Imminent Danger" on Gideon's Blog).
Consider a war that succeeds in destroying the regime in the North, while leaving hundreds of thousands, or millions, dead in the South. After such a war, who would want to be our ally? Our problem with the South Koreans is not so much their newfound tendency to appeasement (although they have indeed been flirting with appeasement), as the fact that there is now a genuine divergence of interest between the South Koreans and ourselves. The policy that best saves Washington and New York most risks Seoul. And this is because South Korea (like Europe) is gradually being transformed from a frontline Cold War tripwire into potential collateral damage in a direct battle between the United States and terrorists and rogue regimes armed with weapons of mass destruction. After a Korean conflict in which both the North and the South are devastated, the world would shun America as a dangerous pariah and from the perspective of the world's interests, this would not be entirely without justification.
Understanding this dynamic (and, given the size of their Muslim population, directly fearing the price of association with America), the French have set themselves up as a leader for all nations who fear being targeted by terrorists as allies of the United States. And perhaps some sense of America's inherently more isolated position is what prevents the Chinese and Russians from casting their lot with the United States in the matter of North Korea. Indeed, the South Koreans themselves oppose a preemptive strike on the North, and it will be almost impossible to initiate a war without their cooperation.
In light of all this, the president is likely, if with great reluctance, to choose negotiations with the North Koreans over war. But that is not the end of the matter. While I can envision the prospect of a disastrous war forcing the president to negotiate with the North Koreans, I cannot envision a scenario in which an agreement actually results. Having been dragged into negotiations with a regime he doesn't trust, the president will insist on the most stringent security guarantees and inspections regime, to insure against repetition of the fiasco with president Clinton's "agreed framework." The North Koreans will never agree to what the president will insist upon. Negotiations will break down, and the manufacture and sale of nuclear materials by the North Koreans will continue.
Presented with intelligence confirming plutonium sales to al Qaeda and/or rogue regimes, the president may then be forced into war. At minimum, in the wake of the Iraqi invasion, the unresolved Korean issue will become a center of domestic and international debate. The pattern will resemble the debate over Iraq, but the imperatives and dilemmas will be far more acute.
In the absence of war in Korea, the next big event will be a dirty bomb, or a full-blown terrorist nuclear strike, in an American city. After that, if there has not already been a war in Korea, there will be.
It seems to me that the only things likely to block this scenario are the collapse of the North Korean regime or the destruction of al Qaeda. In light of the capture of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the end of al Qaeda now seems at least possible. Yet, given the deep problems in the Muslim world, and the interests of rogue regimes, it is difficult to believe that some sort of terrorist force will not be able to reconstitute itself indefinitely.
Someday, the North Korean regime itself may collapse. Yet that is what President Clinton's negotiators told themselves when they signed the agreed framework. The collapse never came. And the current crisis, if "resolved" through negotiations or stalemate, will quite conceivably only strengthen Kim Jong Il's position.
So, sooner or later, a war with North Korea looms, even if only after a horrific terrorist nuclear attack on the United States. In the meantime, it becomes increasingly evident that the Korean situation is an even more acute problem than our problem in Iraq. Most disturbingly, the two crises together point to a dangerous new dynamic, in which our newfound power and vulnerability combine to isolate us from our erstwhile allies, seriously complicating our prospects for success in the global war against terror.
Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
If we just left, that might be enticement enough for Kim Jong-Il to move south. We would then have an excuse to "save the day." Without that excuse, I'm afraid it is lose/lose all the way around.
He is causing us fits. While we are committing fully half of our combat power against Iraq, North Korea starts rattling sabres above the heads of 37,000 U.S. Army and Air Force personnel deployed in the beaten zone of any PDRK invasion. While we still have the other half of our military earmarked for the defense of South Korea, almost all of our strategic sealift and airlift is already committed to deploying and sustaining the Iraqi invasion. Kim knows this, and is ramping up the pressure -- forcing us to consider a nonconventional response to any invasion. This is not a good situation at all...
They don't have much time unless we help them survive. If we don't help them survive, and Bush takes out their nuclear weapons program with a military strike, then they have no long term prospects at all. Six years just isn't in the cards.
This is the essence of the problem. NK is holding Seoul hostage. We cannot eliminate NK WMD without NK killing many in Seoul--it is within range of NK artillery.
The only way to eliminate those WMD and save Seoul is to take out the NK military within range of Seoul virtually instantaneously. The only way to do that is tactical nukes. Not a pretty set of choices.
* Negotiate and appease. Result, the virtual certainty that NK plutonium will end up in American cities someday.
* Take out NK WMD capability. Result. Seoul burns. Thousands dead. US, not NK and China, blamed. The entire peninsula could end up controlled by the NK.
* Take out NK WMD capability and the NK army simultaneously with tactical nukes. Result. We cross the nuclear threshold with no first use of WMD by the enemy. Radiation kills many civilians in NK and SK.
None of these choices look very good. If we don't take the second or third choice very soon, it's moot anyway. By all reports, NK will be producing plutonium in about a month. Once they have it, it will disappear and we will not be able to take out their WMD with bombers.
That's why this is all happening now, when we have our forces concentrating in Iraq.
For crying out loud, they're talking about his deliverable nuclear warheads, not his artillery. He's got two of them already, and he's going to be able to start mass producing them within the next several months.
That having been said, artillery pounding densely packed cities will cause terrible casualties. A city with skyscrapers has never been shelled that heavily before, you'd see the whole skyline collapse in short order. Even so, the shells alone would only, like you said, probably kill off one or two hundred thousand before they could get out of town.
Many casualties will come from chemical weapons. If you have any notion that North Korea won't use them for some reason, part with it immediately. Their doctrine calls for persistant strikes in population centers south of Seoul, and non-persistant strikes on troop and civil concentrations in the path of their advance.
A massive refugee problem will soon erupt, and disease and starvation will claim many as food distribution networks on the densly populated peninsula break down. This is what generally kills off most civilians in war, anyways. If the war drags on for any amount of time, I'd expect to see civilian casualties (SK, that is) number around one million, if we could wrap it up in a few weeks, then it would be less.
Such is the crushing financial and military burden of empire, which will become more and more prohibitive. Our forces in Korea have always been intended as a "tripwire" which would commit us to war if the PDRK attacked. Enough American blood to make us fight, but not enough to win without massive reinforcement [see OPLAN 5027]. They are in the right place to influence the fight, but I question whether they should be there in the first place..
Thou art a thinking man, Mr. Stackhouse...
Does NK fall apart, or does it commit suicide in a mad attack against the South? I suspect it would fall apart.